Monday, April 06, 2015

Court Dismisses Expelled Student's Case Against Vassar

Last week a federal court in New York ruled in favor of Vassar College, granting its motion for summary judgment on discrimination and other claims filed by a male student who had been expelled for sexual assault. The plaintiff, Peter Yu, and the female student who accused him had provided a university disciplinary committee with vastly different accounts of the encounter at the heart of this case; he claims he asked her if she wanted to have sex and she agreed, while she claims that she did not agree and was "helpless" to resist his advances. They also had different interpretations of the messages she sent to him later, in which she apologized for leading him on and offered to "stand up" for him should get in to any trouble over the fact that someone in his dorm called security (because they thought he was "potentially hurting somebody.").  His position is that the messages verify his version of the events, while she claims she sent them in a state of "denial," "shock" and "disbelief."  Based on  this evidence -- along with the statements of witnesses who testified to the female student's intoxicated state and that they were concerned for her when they saw her leave with him -- the committee found Yu responsible and the college expelled him in March of 2013. He sued the university three months later. (We blogged about his complaint at the time.)

Yu's primary claim against Vassar is that the college's decision to expel him violates Title IX.  His argument to this end incorporated two alternative theories that have been accepted by earlier  precedent (coincidentally, also involving Vassar College) in cases challenging university discipline: erroneous outcome and selective enforcement.  First, Yu claimed that gender bias created a flawed process leading to an erroneous outcome.  To this end, Yu made numerous allegations of procedural flaws.  For example, he argued that he was not given enough time to consult with his lawyer prior to the hearing, that he had insufficient opportunity to conduct a cross-examination of witnesses, and that there bias on the part of the disciplinary committee arising from the fact that the complainant's father is on the faculty. The court rejected these and other procedural challenges as being either without factual basis or support in law.

Moreover, even if Yu had established a procedural flaw, the court determined that he presented no evidence that gender bias caused the error.  For example, the court noted, he did not provide any statements by committee members expressing any sort of discriminatory intent, nor did he "provide any statistical evidence that 'males invariably lose' when charged with sexual misconduct at Vassar."  Instead, Yu argues that only bias could explain why the committee did not read the complainant's post-incident messages as evidence of his innocence.  But the court rejected this inference of institutional bias, noting that the committee was free to credit the complainant's explanation for the messages, and to weigh the messages against other inculpatory evidence, such as the testimony provided by the other witnesses who were concerned about the complainant.

Yu also argued that Vassar's policies are biased because, on the one hand, students who are incapacitated by alcohol cannot be said to have consented to sex, while on the other hand, accused students are held responsible for recognizing that, even when they are themselves intoxicated. Yet, while the court acknowledged that the policy may well reflects a "double standard" it is a double standard that benefits complainants over respondents, not women over men.  Vassar's policy is written in a gender-neutral manner and does not assign the role of complainant and respondent based on sex.  Moreover, the court recognized that Vassar's own sexual assault response training emphasizes that sexual assault complaints could be filed by men or women, against men or women. 

Yu's second Title IX argument of selective enforcement fared no better than his erroneous outcome argument. He could not establish that men were treated more harshly than women because Vassar has never had to respond to a sexual assault allegation against a female student.  Moreover, Vassar provided examples of cases in which male students accused of sexual assault were not expelled.

As this case and others demonstrate, plaintiffs challenging university discipline for sexual assault have a difficult time prevailing under Title IX, as there is often very little evidence of gender bias for them to point to. Yet this does not mean universities are free to throw the book at all those accused of sexual assault in order to avoid charges of under-enforcement of Title IX standards (as some Title IX critics may believe). Other avenues remain available to plaintiffs seeking to challenge university discipline, including due process (which only apply against state schools), breach of contract (on the theory that the code of conduct, including its disciplinary procedures, are a contract between the university and the student), and (perhaps) negligence or other torts.  In this case, Yu did not prevail on his breach of contract claim because the court had determined that Vassar had not violated its own procedures.  But, while not applicable here, that cause of action remains available to protect students in the event a university fails to deliver promised procedural rights to students accused of wrongdoing.

Decision: Xiaolu Peter Yu v. Vassar Coll., 2015 WL 1499408 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2015).